Sunday, September 30, 2007

What Makes an Iron Chef?

One week from tonight, The Food Network will premiere its latest reality show. Well, almost reality if you believe there is a thing as Kitchen Stadium and a Chairman who reigns over it with a cadre of this nation's top chefs. I mean, really, who out there thinks the Chairman actually ponders all week thinking what should be the secret ingredient?

Now that I've burst your Santa Chairman bubble, let's get down to the nitty gritty of this new show and why I'm looking forward to it. This isn't a bunch of amateurs competing for their own show, or a gaggle of sous chefs hoping to open their own restaurant. This is going to spotlight cooking by some of the nation's best chefs, many of them owners of top-rated restaurants and James Beard-award winners. So this show has the best chances of spotlighting real cooking, instead of fancy editing of drama between reality show contestants.

Iron Chef (the original from Japan) is one of my favorite imported TV shows for its quick cooking and energetic TV commentating. The American version, Iron Chef America, has held up well although Alton Brown, while knowledgeable, doesn't carry off the same witty banter I enjoyed in the Japanese original. Still, I enjoy watching the judging to hear the Iron Chefs and real world chefs presenting their dishes and describing how they made it.

When Iron Chef America expanded from the typical three chef format to four, I thought it was so unnecessary. But then newbie Iron Chef Cat Cora has grown on me with her clean cooking and local charm. When I heard the show was going to look for another Iron Chef, I again thought it was so unnecessary. Does this mean less TV time for the fantastic Morimoto? (I doubt Bobby Flay will let anyone steal away air time from him ;-) Then I read that Mario Batali's contract with the Food Network was allowed to expire and no effort was made to bring him back to Food TV, so then appeared a real opening on Iron Chef America. (Now, those are going to be some big orange clogs for someone to fill.) I mean, people, this time "it really counts." (Is that the right slogan for the MLB All-Star game? Anyone?)

Starting next Monday, Oct. 8, I'll be posting recaps of the show (check back around 7 p.m. PST to give me time to get back from the gym and get a quick snack before posting). And as a preview, here are the eight cheftestants and Iron Chef hopefuls with my predictions:

John Besh, chef and owner of Restaurant August in New Orleans. With his boyish good looks, Besh is going to give Flay a run for his money in cornering the Iron Chef charm. I think he has the best chance of winning the competition because he has one Iron Chef battle under his wings and has the perfect personality for TV. (And did I mention his good looks?) A James Beard winner in 2006, Besh has been featured as a judge in various Food Network competition shows. His only negative may be that the show already has a Southern representative with Iron Chef Cora so you know the yanks in New York programming won't allow another one to sneak in.

Chris Cosentino, executive chef of Incanto in San Francisco. If anything, I predict chef Cosentino's hair will win. I bet it can cook on its own! Still, I'm sure Cosentino's Italian style will actually fill nicely the void left by Batali. So that means Cosentino also has a likely chance of winning. I put him and Besh among the top competitors and probably going head-to-head in the finale. Cosentino would bring a lot of excitement to Iron Chef America because he's a believer of using every part of the animal in his cooking, which means he has an innovative flair that will definitely impress the judges' panel. His only negative is that he lost in his previous appearance as a competitor on Iron Chef America. I guess the judges weren't that impressed by his offal fixins.

Jill Davie, TV chef host of Fine Living's "Shopping With Chefs." One of two female contestants, Davie was an up and coming restaurant chef, working at restaurants such as Charlie Trotter's in Chicago before helping to open LA's Josie's Restaurant. But TV apparently lured her away from the kitchen. Her bio on the Food Network says she was a Sunkist spokeswoman and appeared on Food Network shows such as "Date Plate" and "Party Starters" (didn't watch either). While she apparently has the TV chops, I think she's a long shot in being a Iron Chef because it's been awhile since she's worked in a busy kitchen.

Traci Des Jardins, chef and owner of Jardiniere in San Francisco. Des Jardins is the second female cheftestant and the second with Bay Area ties! (Go San Francisco!) Her restaurant Jardiniere is among the best in the city (and recently had an anniversary and makeover of its downstairs bar, now known as J Lounge) and she has won numerous awards and magazine recognition. She's also gone head-to-head on Iron Chef America and won! Despite the prestigious portfolio, Des Jardins may not have the TV personality required by the Food Network (although I have to say she really glammed up for her photo shoot). If she can bring out her personality during the competition, then her chances may increase. For now, she's in the middle of the pack.

Gavin Kaysen, chef de cuisine of El Bizcocho in San Diego. I'm going to call Kaysen "chef cutie." This 28-year-old will definitely win the young female American Idol voters if the Iron Chef battle was chosen by viewers' choice. But I don't think that's going to happen. So Chef Cutie will provide some nice eye candy but will probably not win the whole tamale. What he does have going for him, other than his TV good looks, is that he's trained in French cuisine and that's a style of cooking that's lacking on Iron Chef America (there was a well-known French Iron Chef in the Japanese show). So if the producers feel they want to bring in that side of traditional cooking, Chef Cutie may have a chance.

Morou, chef and owner of Farrah Olivia Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia. OK, how do you become known as the one-name chef? Is Morou the Cher of the food world? Hmmm, interesting. This South African native is the wild card in this competition. I don't know much about him but he will bring a unique approach to cooking that American TV has never displayed properly, African cooking. So if he has a personality to match his apparent cooking chops, then he may be the sleeper of the series.

Aaron Sanchez, chef and owner of Paladar in New York. The only chef from New York, Sanchez is a true celebrity chef making TV appearances and writing his own book on Mexican-style cooking. His appearance on Iron Chef America is actually airing tonight as I'm writing this preview, so maybe I'll get some insight about his style although I'll probably be watching Desperate Housewives. I think Sanchez might have the chops to be an Iron Chef, but his Latin style of cooking seems to duplicate Bobby Flay and Cat Cora. So he's also in the middle of the pack.

Michael Symon, chef and former host of Food Network's "Melting Pot." I have to say, I never watched Melting Pot when Symon was on so I can't say I remember him. Similar to Jill Davie, Symon has a true career in food TV with several appearances in a variety of food shows over the years. I don't think he'll be much of a challenge, however, since his style of cooking seems to lack a definite voice. Plus, not to be mean, but doesn't he look like he should be on TLC's "Monster Garage" instead? I could be wrong.

So that's it! Again, my top picks are John Besh and Chris Cosentino's hair. Check back every week for my recap to see if my picks change.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Creamy Cassata Gelato

Recently when I was in downtown Berkeley, I visited one of my favorite gelato shops, Gelato Milano, which is conveniently a few steps away from the downtown Berkeley BART station. The gelato there has such a buttery consistency that it's a real guilty pleasure. I typically eat the fruit flavors, but this time I tried some Italian treats. Above is a Cassata-inspired gelato topped off with the classic Tiramisu flavor. The tiramisu flavor was great; it really was just like eating the cream in a tiramisu dessert. The cassata was a new flavor for me. Cassata is a traditional Sicilian cake that has bits of fruits, often orange flavor. So this gelato flavor had a definite orange flavor, which I like, and a similar creamy texture like the tiramisu. These Italian dessert-inspired flavors seemed to have a bit more air in the gelato than the normal dense buttery consistency. So it was like eating whipped cream frosting. Still, it was an interesting new flavor to try. Instead of making a whole cassata cake, you can just buy a scoop! ;-)

Gelato Milano, 2170 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. PH: 510.649.1888. Web site.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dish on Dining: Jai Yun

Family Dinner with Chef Nei
923 Pacific Ave. at Powell, San Francisco [[Update 11/26/07: New location at 680 Clay St. at Kearny]]
Chinatown/Nob Hill neighborhood
PH: 415.981.7438
Chef's tasting dinners daily with primary seating at 7 p.m.
Reservations required. Cash only.
Web site

Growing up Chinese, I’ve been to my share of Chinese banquets, where dishes and dishes of food come one after another until you actually hear people saying: “please, enough.” But I’ve never heard of a Chinese tasting menu, where diners give up control of selecting the menu to the chef. (My mom would never leave it to the chef; she would think the chef would give us whatever dishes he couldn’t move that day.)

So when fellow food blogger Foodhoe suggested Jai Yun and its multi-course chef’s tasting menu, I was intrigued.

I’d never heard of Jai Yun, so I did some research on the Web and found raving reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle and among some food bloggers—one even calling the restaurant’s chef and owner Nei Chiaji the Chinese version of Thomas Keller. Now that’s a pretty high standard to live up to and it did more than raise my expectations of dinner at Jai Yun.

Our initial attempt to go to Jai Yun was foiled when the restaurant closed for a few days near the end of summer. So Foodhoe made a reservation for the following Thursday, which is surprising because all information on this restaurant says they’re closed on that day. But with confirmation in hand, Foodhoe and I walked the hills of San Francisco’s Chinatown to the door of Jai Yun.

NOTE: Two important things about planning to eat at Jai Yun. 1) Reservations are required and it seems like there’s only one seating, at 7 p.m. If you call later in the day, you’re more likely to reach the chef’s son, who speaks a little more English than his wife. 2) Bring cash, despite the fact that the fixed price for the dinner can go as high as $100 per person. This really is a family-run restaurant.

The outside of the restaurant looks like any tiny Chinese restaurant you’ll find in Chinatown, except it’s plastered with several Zagat logos. You walk in to what some might consider a dive but what I think is a real mom-and-pop restaurant with casual décor and a lot of Christmas lights. Foodhoe and I were the first to arrive so we picked a table near the window. We were given menus that didn’t list the food items (because that’s decided by the chef) but instead gave us information about the chef’s approach to dinner (he selects fresh and seasonal ingredients from that day’s market) and his upbringing (he’s originally from Nanjing, which is the ancient capital of China not too far from Shanghai). Behind me were placards with Chinese characters and English translations describing various dishes.

After being left alone for quite some time, the hostess (my guess is the chef’s wife) came back to get our decision about our dinner level. The minimum for dinner is $45 per person but Foodhoe and I decided to kick it up a notch and go for $55. (More adventurous people can go for even higher menus in the $75-100 range.) Then we sat back and waited for the feast to begin.A young man dressed in a well-worn T-shirt (my guess is the chef’s son) started us with the cold plates. He brought out mini plates with food neatly piled into a tiny molehill and briefly announced each dish to us. There were too many plates to photograph so here’s a couple of snapshots of some of the cold dishes. A total of nine plates arrived and they included (in order of appearance): 1) Jellyfish salad, 2) thinly sliced Lotus Root Salad, 3) Green Radish Salad, 4) thinly sliced Preserved Beef, 5) Pickled Cabbage, 6) Mixed Mushrooms with Shark Fin, 7) Dried Tofu slices, 8) Cucumber Salad and 9) Cilantro Salad.

A clear distinction of all the dishes is the fantastic knife skills of Chef Nei. The cucumber were paper-thin and you could almost thread a needle with the jellyfish (OK, maybe not, but they were the thinnest jellyfish slices I’ve ever seen.) There were so much precision in each cut that many of the pieces looked identical.

The taste was a mix bag of things familiar and things not: the jellyfish was bland, the lotus root was nicely pickled, so were the radish, which had a nice crunch with an underlining sesame oil flavor. The sweet-and-sour vinaigrette was perfect in the pickled cabbage but was virtually nonexistent in the cucumber. The tofu tasted like every other vegetarian dish I’ve had at a Chinese restaurant (and I don’t like forced vegetarian dishes at Chinese restaurants) but the thinly sliced preserved beef had an interesting spicy flavor.

After Foodhoe and I dissected each of the tiny dishes (which really could have come in one big appetizer platter) then came the warm dishes. I’ll discuss each as they arrived at our table.

Foo Yung Abalone, one of Chef Nei’s signature dish. It’s very thinly sliced abalone moistened by fluffy fried egg whites. The warmth of the egg whites blended perfectly with the tender flesh of the abalone. I could see why many people like this dish. My only thing was that, visually, this dish looked like barf. It was just a big white blob. But a tasty blob nonetheless.

Gluten with fresh bamboo shoots, green bellpepper, carrots and mushrooms. I don’t think I ever ate gluten, until I took one bite of the squishy product and realized this is the thing they throw in all those Chinese vegetarian dishes. Based on my comment above, you can guess that I wasn’t thrilled by this dish.

Ginkgo Nuts and Shrimp. This stir-fry dish was filling, but the ginkgo nuts were more like garbanzo beans instead of the herbal-tasting ginkgo nuts I’m familiar with. (My mom often put ginkgo nuts in her clear-broth soups.) The overall dish also had the familiar cornstarch glaze found in most Chinese stir-fries, and this was a flavor base that would come back often in upcoming dishes.
Soybean Tofu Chop Suey. I don’t think Chef Nei would admit to calling this a chop suey—the Americanized version of Chinese stir-fry—but it really felt like it was from the same family. This was just a mix of soybeans (the edamame) and thin tofu strips with a mix of other vegetables and oyster sauce. I was starting to feel like we were eating at a vegetarian restaurant.

Green peas, corn and fish. This fish dish was unusual in that the white fish was chopped into tiny bits the size of the peas. But that didn’t necessarily change the taste. It was like any other stir-fry plate you might find at other fine Chinese restaurants. It didn’t tickle my taste buds with new flavors.

Special Orange Beef. This is the basic deep-fried beef with orange sauce. Most Chinese restaurants would make this technique using pork ribs, but Chef Nei uses thinly sliced beef. The texture was interesting and the slight orange sauce with bits of orange peel didn’t overwhelm the plate. It also had a slightly spicy flavor representing the chef’s Northern-style cooking.

Celery with Five Spices and Dried Tofu. Just when I thought we were done with the vegetarian dish, we get another tofu selection. This was brightened by the crunch of tiny young baby celery pieces. I wasn’t a fan of the pressed tofu that were julienned to match the celery and didn’t get any five-spice flavoring.

Braised Pork Leg. In case you weren’t keeping count, this is course No. 17. And it was finally at this point that my mouth exploded with flavor. And why wouldn’t it when you’re fed slow-cooked meat? This dish is actually based on one of my favorite specialty dishes at Cantonese restaurants. At some restaurants, tender duck pieces are slow cooked and the meat encases a mix of herbs and other vegetarian ingredients created into a mound. This dish is often called Duck with Eight Treasures and you have to order it a day in advance at most restaurants because of the slow cooking and preparation required. At Jai Yun, the chef used a pork leg and creates the same tender meat with brown sauce like the duck dish I’m familiar with but with added layers of flavors such as five spice and hoisin.

Hubei Winter Melon. Initially I thought Chef Nei didn’t really have a clear theme to his tasting menu, and then I realize that he has basically set the course based on spiciness. As the meal went on, the dishes got spicier. Prime example is this winter melon dish. I’m more familiar with eating winter melon as a soup, so I was surprised to find it as a hidden treasure. Where was it hidden? In a big mound of spicy pork ragu that was delicious and hot, contrasting nicely with the cool, tender winter melon meat in the center.

Kung Pao Chicken. I was disappointed to hear that our final dish, course No. 19, was Kung Pao Chicken. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kung Pao Chicken, but there’s been some debate about how authentic this dish is to Chinese cuisine. Maybe it is, but I thought it wasn’t as innovative a dish to serve for a tasting dinner. It was definitely the most spicy of all the dishes served that night and this was when I wished we had a bowl of steamed rice.

NOTE: Rice isn’t served in this tasting menu because the chef doesn’t want you to get full before you’ve eaten all the dishes. I guess you could request rice at the end, but by then you’ll probably be too full.

After ending our tasting menu on such a spicy note, Foodhoe and I agreed that it would have been nice if we were given some kind of sweet dessert. We didn’t get anything. So we just gulped our water and paid the bill, which came out to be about $70 for each of us after we added tax and tip to the $55 base we selected.

On this Thursday night, there were only one other table dining with us. But it was a table of 10 and despite them being the only other table, the dynamics of the room made their laughter and chatter much louder than expected. I can’t imagine what it would be like if it was a packed house.

So let’s get one thing clear from the get-go: Chef Nei is no Thomas Keller. While Nei has wonderful knife skills, he lacks the vision and innovative approach to cooking that Keller offers in his many restaurants. (Not to mention the difference in service.) I did enjoy my meal, mostly because I like the idea of guessing what dish would come next and discussing each plate with a fellow food lover. But I wouldn’t call Jai Yun’s tasting menu a true tasting menu. It’s more like going to Chef Nei’s family home and being treated to his everyday dishes instead of special banquet-type creations.

I’m also a bit torn about whether it was worth paying $55 for 19 tiny courses when I probably could have spent the same amount for five to seven hearty servings at another fine Chinese restaurant. I also question how much thought Chef Nei really puts into his entrees because many of them seem very generic and dishes such as the abalone and slow-cooked pork leg seems to appear in every review of Jai Yun, making me wonder if he’s serving pretty much the same menu but making people think he thought up that menu that day? I mean, really, he’s in Chinatown where he easily could have tempted us with fresh seafood such as calamari or frog legs or even squab and poussin. Instead we got mostly generic Chinese stir-fries.

I didn’t leave Jai Yun disappointed, because I love eating adventures and love tasting menus. I just didn’t leave terribly impressed.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (it's like an average Iron Chef tasting)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

For Foodhoe’s take on the dinner, check out her review and great photos (much better than mines).

Jai Yun in San Francisco

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

It's Like A Whole Block

I've been waiting for months for the Whole Foods Market to open in Oakland because it's just a couple of blocks from my work, which means easy after-work shopping on my way home. (Before I would shop at the Whole Foods Market in Berkeley, which is a 15-minute bus ride and 10-minute walk from my home.) Today the new Oakland store, built in the Adams Point neighborhood near Lake Merritt, finally opened to the public. And while I don't want to necessarily make this one big advertisement, I couldn't ignore the elephant in the room. (This is only the third Whole Foods in the East Bay.) You know I was there on opening day checking out the new store, and first impression is this place is huuuuge. (It officially weighs in at 55,000 square feet.)

What took awhile for this store to be built is that it's in a historic building (a former Cadillac dealership) and Whole Foods took care in retaining the facade of the former building, near the auto row area of Oakland surrounded by car dealerships. On a beautiful sunny day, there are tons of outdoor seating for people who buy a ready-made food pack and choose to eat on the spot.

This is one of many specialty food counters in the center of the huge store. This one, the Asian Express, focuses on Asian dishes, from Chinese to Thai to Japanese. Naturally this is where you'll find the sushi counter. Off to the side next to it is the roastery and charcuterie.

Near the produce section and adjacent to the wine wall is a bistro selling sandwiches, soups, roasted items and other dishes perfect for lunch. You can bet I'll be here often on my lunch hour!
Since this is a really new store, there are many "organic" and "feel good" food sayings all over the place, such as this one over the huge cheese counter.

Similar to the new store opened in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood, this Oakland store offers a spa area near the cosmetics area. I'm not sure, but I think you actually can get a massage behind those doors.

Here's the pizza counter with freshly made pizza from the Hearth oven. It's right next to a gelato counter serving gelato from Naia. Perfecto!

Here's the huge indoor area of the cafe. I love how there is so much natural light coming in with the design of the store.

I like how in the center of the store there's this huge Oakland sign. It really shows how the store is showing its support for the community, and with the crowds that gathered today and all the oohs and aahs I heard walking around, it looks like the community is happy Whole Foods is finally opened as well. It's still true that Whole Foods have some pretty high-priced products, but they also have some unique-looking and hard-to-find products that you're willing to pay the high price to get. For me, it'll be a nice quality place that's convenient. I won't shop here for all my food needs, but will come looking for things when I feel creative.

Whole Foods Market, 230 Bay Place, Oakland. PH: 510.834.9800.

Business Lunch: Fried Rice Korean-Style

Fried rice is always my easy go-to lunch for work because I'm using leftover rice and whatever is in my refrigerator. The recipe below is for Kim Chee Fried Rice, which is inspired by my recent hankering for Korean food and from what is a very popular dish in Hawaii. The Kim Chee makes this a bit spicier dish, but tasty if it's one of your favorite ethnic condiment. And it is for me. Just a warning though, some of your co-workers may not be familiar with the smell of Kim Chee, especially when warmed in the office microwave. So be considerate and heat it up and let the food air out a bit before dashing off to enjoy your lunch! (Note: I always cook brown rice, so my fried rice looks brown because of that. You can use regular long grain white rice that's one to two days old.)

Kim Chi Fried Rice

Copyright 2007 by Cooking With The Single Guy

3/4 cup Kim Chi or Kim Chee, diced finely
6 oz. ground beef or veal
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 to 3 cups day-old rice
1 egg
2 stalks green onion or spring onion, chopped
1 T sesame oil
1 T soy sauce
1 T Xiao Shing cooking wine or sherry
2 T Canola oil
salt and pepper

Marinate meat in sesame oil, soy sauce, Xiao Shing wine and a pinch of salt and pepper. Set aside for about 10 minutes.

In a wok or large skillet, warm oil over high heat and then add ground meat and stir-fry to brown all the pieces. (Use your spatula to break the meat into small chunks if needed.) Add frozen peas and cook for another minute. If you have a lot of excess oil or moisture from the meat and peas, pour it out before continuing.

Add rice, breaking up clumps with your hands if needed. Season again with salt and pepper and even a dash of soy sauce if you like it saltier. Add kim chee and green onion and mix all the ingredients. Then add egg (scramble first in a small dish) and quickly stir-fry. Plate and garnish with more kim chee and green onion.

Makes 2 to 3 servings.

Pair with a glass of Gewurztraminer.

TIP: The egg can be a tricky stir-frying challenge in fried rice. When you add it at the end like I stated above, it can be more of a glazy mess. If you don't like your egg on the wet side, then scramble your egg in a separate pan beforehand and then add to your fried rice near the end. This way your fried rice is more on the dry and fluffy side.

KIM CHEE: This Korean staple can now be found at most refrigerated Asian section of grocery stores, at least in major cities. If not, you may be able to find them at a Korean supermarket or Asian grocery store. They're typically sold in jars.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

395 Posts, 98 Recipes, 64 Reviews, 1 Year of Blogging

Today marks one whole year since I started my blog, posting my recipe for Peaches and Pork Stir Fry. When I started, I didn't really know how long I would be doing it and if anyone would come and visit. I thought I'd post maybe two or three items a week, but as some of you know I post now nearly four to five times a week. I didn't know I would have so much to talk about!

I want to thank all of you who have visited my blog in the past year. I especially want to thank those of you who have left me comments, either on individual postings or via email. I really love hearing from you and am always at a wonder as to how you've found me. In the past year I've heard from people all over the world, from a woman in London looking for a jook recipe to a Web site in Sweden that liked my asparagus soup recipe. I also heard from many of my fellow locals from my hometown of Hawaii, and of course those in my backyard here in this foodie community of the Bay Area.

I'm looking forward to the next year of blogging. I know in recent months several food bloggers have taken breaks from blogging or gone on hiatus. I can't promise I might not hit burnout, but as long as I still have fun doing this, you'll continue to find recipes, reviews, shopping finds and more. In fact, in the next few months I'm hoping to do more interviews of food people and in a couple of weeks I'll be starting my TV recaps of Food Network's new show "The Next Iron Chef." So busy times ahead. I hope you'll continue on my ride.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Casaba: The Wrinkly Melon

It's a wet Saturday morning here where I am so probably not that fun to head out to the farmers' market. So we'll do it virtually! This is a photo of casabas, a melon that has this really interesting thick wrinkly skin. I thought they were so interesting-looking when I saw them last Sunday at the Civic Center farmers market in San Francisco. They're supposedly on the mild side and have a long shelf life because of its skin. I tried a sample at the stand and it was like a mushy honeydew. I like the name, though, casaba.

Visiting the Market With The Best
Did any of you read the New York Times article in this past week's Dining Section? The food writer got Alice Waters to come to her Brooklyn home to cook for her. How do I get that gig? I know Waters can be a pretty controversial figure, but I have to say she really loves the farmers market and it shows in an accompanying video to the story. If you haven't seen it, you should check it out here. It's like watching someone fall in love again and again.

Alice Waters photo and video courtesy of the New York Times Web site.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Howling Over Moon Cakes

This coming Tuesday (Sept. 25) is the Autumn Moon Festival, celebrated by many Chinese families all around the world. It’s the second most festive celebration in the Chinese culture after the Lunar New Year. I remember growing up in Honolulu, my mom would spend all day cooking in the kitchen making all of her favorite dishes and then we’d spend the night hiding from our relatives who came over for the feast (my siblings and I were shy kids). Because the Moon Festival celebrates the coming of the first harvest, you have to put on a pretty big spread to make it a bountiful fall.

One of the treats of the festival (because you know there has to be sweets for any happy occasion) is the moon cakes. They’re pastries molded into a circular form to resemble the moon and then filled with a variety of sweet pastes made with ingredients such as lotus root, black sesame or red beans. There’s even some fillings that are like a minced meat pie and one resembling what can only be called a fruitcake. The moon cakes often have these decorative relief images on them, which is made by pressing them into bamboo molds with specialized carvings. Because a lot of oil is used to make moon cakes, a well-used mold will often have the dark sheen of years of happy use. (The carvings are typically Chinese characters of the bakery’s name, but they may also be some lucky words.)

The Moon Festival was one of my favorite festivals growing up because of the folklore that surrounded it. The story goes that a young couple in love (aren’t they always?) wanted to escape an angry father who didn’t want them to be together. They attempted to fly to the moon with the help of a fairy, but only the woman was able to reach the moon. But every year, during the first full moon of the fall, the couple reunites for just one night. Another story is connected to the moon cakes. During the period when the Mongols ruled China, an uprising was organized by having secret revolutionary plans inserted into the moon cakes. That’s supposedly how the Ming Dynasty came to be.

Now that you have a proper background of the festival, on to the food discussion, which I’m sure you’re much more interested in hearing. I love moon cakes but I try not to eat that many because, like I mentioned above, a lot of oil is used to keep the filling moist. Moon cakes are sold in boxes of four and you’ll find them at local Chinese bakeries, some dim sum restaurants and Chinese grocery stores. Some boxes, especially the tin boxes from Hong Kong, have elaborate designs of the lady in the moon. Some people swear by the Hong Kong varieties, saying the Hong Kong brands have a more expert technique and flavor. But these moon cakes are generally very expensive and you run the risk of it not being as moist as locally made moon cakes. (A box can run about $25 to $40.)

San Francisco is lucky in that it has a very old Chinatown with a few bakeries. For years, Eastern Bakery’s moon cakes were very popular on Grant Avenue. But when it became too much of a tourist destination, many of the locals started feeling that Eastern’s moon cakes weren’t as good. Nowadays, you’ll see a long line (even longer than usual) at Golden Gate Bakery (also on Grant Avenue) as people wait in line to order their moon cakes. (Photo at very top shows the line at Golden Gate Bakery last night at around 6:45 p.m.)

I personally feel Golden Gate Bakery uses too much butter and oil in their products, so I don’t feel like standing in their long lines for what may be a very greasy and oily moon cake. So I ended up at Eastern Bakery. (photo right) Despite being written off as a tourist trap, their moon cakes are still pretty authentic. And since I’m the Single Guy, I’m really just looking for one cake.

Above is a picture of the moon cake I purchased at Eastern Bakery. It’s made with a lotus paste filling and one egg yolk. The egg yolk is important to the moon cake because it symbolizes the moon. But you can get moon cakes without them because some people don’t like the salty flavor of the egg mixing in with the sweet filling. (The egg is preserved in salt water before being added to the moon cake.) The yolk is my favorite part because I’m a savory-sweet kind of guy. I paid $5.25 for that one moon cake (I know, moon cakes are expensive). If you don’t want to invest that much in trying your first moon cake, Eastern Bakery offers these mini moon cakes for a few dollars less.

Party in the Streets of San Francisco: While Tuesday is the private family celebration of the Moon Festival, the public festivities occur this weekend (Sept. 22-23) when the Chinatown Merchants Association puts on the annual Moon Festival street fair. Grant Avenue will be closed off to traffic and you can wander and buy things from the food booths and flower stands. If you always thought Chinatown was crowded, it’ll be even more so during this street fair that occurs on both Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Eastern Bakery, 720 Grant Ave., San Francisco. PH: 415.982.5157
Golden Gate Bakery, 1029 Grant Ave., San Francisco. PH: 415.781.2627

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dish on Dining: Pyung Chang Soft Tofu House

Its Soon, Delightful
4701 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
Temescal neighborhood
PH: 510.658.9040
Cash only

I’m amazed at the number of Korean restaurants in Oakland, more so than in San Francisco. Many of them are clustered on Telegraph Avenue and they even reach the far north corner of my humble abode. So recently when the weather started to turn autumnal, I went hunting for the hot, spicy Korean comfort food known as soon—or soft tofu soup.

I walked down to the nearby Temescal neighborhood, past all the tempting foodie hotspots such as Bakesale Betty, Pizzaiolo and Dona Tomas, and found myself at the doorsteps of Pyung Chang Soft Tofu House. This small, corner restaurant in an old Victorian blends with the somewhat rough neighborhood. With its door closed, it was hard to tell past the dingy windows whether it was open for business.

But sure enough, it was. I entered and was seated at one of the rustic wooden benches that looked like they came from a summer lodge in Taiwan. Off to the side, the cashier counter looked like the front desk of an Asian youth hostel with its stark black and white Korean letterings (which I’m assuming is the menu) and a closed-circuit television of the restaurant (which I’m assuming is for the times when the place gets so packed the waitress can check to see if a table in the back is done).

The ambiance was definitely mom-and-pop. The kind of place that you can ensure you’ll get cheap, ethnic food—and if you’re lucky, cheap, tasty ethnic food.

After flipping through the pictured menu, I ordered the Original Soon Tofu Soup with Pork ($8.99). There were maybe six other versions of this tofu soup, but I decided to stick with the classic. Now typically, I’d recommend ordering a side bowl of rice in a stone pot, which is always fun to see rice come in this rustic-style stoneware. The hot stone continues to cook the rice, creating a nice bottom layer of crispy rice that’s fun to stir into your soon.

But instead of just a side dish of rice, I decided to order the Bi Bim Bap in stoneware ($10.99), mostly because I like saying Bi Bim Bap. (A few years ago, I went to Vancouver, B.C., with my sister and brother-in-law for the New Year and I got so drunk at a Korean bar on New Year’s Eve that I spent the night hunting for Bi Bim Bap. See how a food’s name can haunt you sometimes?) The Bi Bim Bap is a traditional Korean dish of mixed vegetables and some meat all blending with eggs and hot sauce over a bed of rice. It reminds me of a rice version of the Japanese sukiyaki. And of course, I ordered the Bi Bim Bap on stoneware to get that crispy bottom layer.

After I placed my order, then the parade of panchan dishes arrived at my table. Panchan (or side dishes) is a unique part of the Korean dining experience. No matter what type of Korean restaurant you go to, you’ll get some kind of free side dishes brought out to you at the start of your meal, almost like an amuse bouche, but times 10. Once I ate in a Korean restaurant in Manhattan that brought out probably a dozen panchan dishes. Even traveling alone in Vietnam earlier this year, I ducked into a Korean restaurant for dinner one night and was treated to a nice array of panchan dishes.

For this evening, the waitress brought six panchan plates to my table. I guessed five of the six: 1) there was the ubiquitous kim chi, or fermented cabbage, 2) spicy Shanghai cabbage, 3) pickled celery, 4) tiny dried fish and 5) bean sprouts in a light oil sauce. The mystery dish was thin strips of a white vegetable. I thought maybe it was pickled daikon, but it didn’t have that crunch to it. It was soft and mushy and my least favorite of the panchan selection.

Overall, I wasn’t impressed by Pyung Chang’s panchan, even though it was free. They didn’t have my favorite—pickled cucumber—and some of them didn’t seem very fresh. (The pickled celery had brown edges.)

Then my dinner arrived. And you can always tell when your dinner is coming from the bubbling sound of the soon and the popping sound of my Bi Bim Bap in the hot stone plate (maybe that’s where they get the name? LOL). And after a quick demonstration by the waitress on how to pour the hot sauce over the Bi Bim Bap (really, lady, I know how to pour sauce and that circular motion you’re doing really doesn’t add anything), I dug into my food.

First the soon, which is what Pyung Chang is known for. I mean, it’s in the name of the restaurant. The tofu was soft and creamy and probably one of the best soft tofu I’ve had in a long time. It blended nicely with the soup base with the bits of pork chunks. I have to say, though, that I would have preferred the soup a bit more spicy. I have a feeling the waitress ordered me a mild soon even though she never asked me whether I wanted it spicy or mild. (Spicy, always spicy.) So I ended up dipping a few of my kim chi from the panchan into my soup, and it was nice.

The Bi Bim Bap was a feast for the eye, as usual, but it lacked any flavor. If I didn’t generously pour on the special hot sauce (yes, lady, I did it in a circular motion), it would have tasted like watery vegetables. My Bi Bim Bap was supposed to have thin slices of beef, but I only saw a few slices of beef mixed in with all the vegetables and egg. But the rice—continuously cooking on the stone plate—was perfectly crisp and I dipped some of it into my soon.

Side note: Like any small ethnic dives, Pyung Chang has no real air-conditioning. This probably isn’t a big issue with fall coming soon, but it makes me wonder who comes here for hot tofu soup during the spring and summer? With its wooden benches, lack of air conditioning and hot, spicy food, this really is a sweat lodge.

The 7-year-old Pyung Chang Soft Tofu House has gotten a lot of attention from non-Asian eaters with the proliferation of Yelp reviews. Is the soup that good? Yes. Is the restaurant overall worth all the stars being lavished on it? I don’t think so. I recommend Pyung Chang for the tofu soon, but its lack of quality ingredients in the other dishes and the somewhat dingy interiors of the place make this more a neighborhood joint than a destination spot for people looking for superior Korean cuisine.

Single guy rating: 2 stars (would be more if I rated only the soup)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Pyung Chang Tofu House in Oakland